NEW YORK (AP) – Randy Johnson glared at Johnny Damon, sending an early message. The Big Unit muttered when plate umpire Derryl Cousins didn’t give him calls and tapped his glove on his chest after strikeouts.

Pumping fastballs at up to 99 mph and sliders that darted down, he put together his best performance of the season, and did it against the Red Sox with the Yankees desperately needing a win to stay in contention in the AL East.

Johnson gave up one hit – a soft single at that – in stifling Boston over seven innings. Jason Giambi homered off Tim Wakefield in the first on a curveball that just stayed fair, and Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera staved off the Red Sox in a 1-0 victory Sunday.

“That’s the pitcher that everybody expected, and that’s the pitcher that I’d expected,” said Johnson, who improved to 4-0 against the Red Sox this season.

After the teams exchanged sloppy wins – 8-4 by New York on Friday and 9-2 by Boston on Saturday – they played nine crisp and tense innings. Wakefield pitched a three-hitter, and the Yankees allowed just three hits. New York had not beaten the Red Sox 1-0 on a homer since Roy White connected off Jose Santiago on May 11, 1968, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Seeking its eighth straight AL East title, New York moved within three games of the first-place Red Sox with three weeks left. The Yankees began the day 11/2 games behind Cleveland in the wild-card race.

“The big thing was not coming in here and getting swept,” Boston’s Doug Mirabelli said.

Do the Yankees have a shot to overtake the Red Sox?

“Sure we have,” owner George Steinbrenner said.

Pitching one day after his 42nd birthday and on the fourth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Johnson (14-8) struck out eight and walked two on an afternoon filled with brilliant sunshine.

Boston’s only hit off the 6-foot-10 left-hander was by Kevin Youkilis, who led off the fourth by lofting a 1-2 pitch into short left-center.

The Big Unit regularly hit 96-97 mph, according to the center-field scoreboard, which registered a 99 mph pitch to Damon in the third. He got Manny Ramirez to fly to center on a 98 mph fastball in the seventh, throwing so hard to the cleanup hitter that he developed a cramp in his left calf. He ended the inning by striking out Kevin Millar with his 100th pitch.

In his first season with the Yankees, Johnson’s ERA is 3.91. He’s tinkered with mechanics, and Alex Rodriguez said he may have been tipping pitches earlier this year.

“The stuff’s there, obviously,” Johnson said. “It’s been there all year. It’s been in hibernation.”

On Saturday, Yankees manager Joe Torre had told Johnson: “We need you.”

“This game, above any other game, I don’t think he has to answer any more questions about handling this situation ever again,” Torre said. “I thought today was very significant for him. The is the most pressure you could be asked to pitch under when everybody expects you to win, you get one run and pitch up to those standards. So I think he showed people today that, yeah, this is a game “This is why they got you,’ and didn’t leak a bit.”

Tony Graffanino singled past a diving Rodriguez at third base leading off the eighth against Gordon, and Mirabelli hit an infield popup. Gordon didn’t see it off the bat and the ball bounced on the mound.

Rodriguez had cut in from third and picked up the ball on a hop. Robinson Cano had retreated to second and took the throw to force out pinch-runner Adam Stern.

Bill Mueller flied out and Boston sent major league RBIs leader David Ortiz, held out of the starting lineup against Johnson, up to pinch hit. Rivera relieved and shattered Ortiz’s bat on a checked swing before walking him, giving the Red Sox their first runner on second.

Rivera needed 10 pitches to retire Damon, who hit a broken-bat grounder to first.

“He breaks a lot of my at-bats,” Damon said. “Maybe I ought to send him a bill.”

Rivera gloved Edgar Renteria’s liner leading off the ninth, but walked Ramirez on a 3-2 pitch with two outs and allowed a single to Millar that put runners on the corners.

John Olerud, part of the Yankees team that wasted a 3-0 lead to Boston in last year’s AL championship series, pinch hit and struck out, giving Rivera his 37th save in 41 chances.

“The last pitch was over the plate but was up and out of the strike zone,” Olerud said.

Wakefield (15-11) struck out a career-high 12 in the knuckleballer’s third complete game this season. Giambi had been hitless in 18 straight at-bats against Wakefield before he fouled off a pair of 1-2 pitches and followed with his 29th homer, his second in two days.

“I just saw it pop out of his hand, and I said I can put this one in play,” Giambi said.

“I couldn’t believe he hit it,” Wakefield said. “It was a pretty good pitch.”

It wasn’t clear that the ball would stay fair until it went over the wall, just next to the screen attached to foul pole. The other hits off Wakefield were Bubba Crosby’s third-inning triple and Cano’s sixth-inning double.

“Today it did everything. It went up, it went down, it went left it went right,” Rodriguez said. “He had us talking to each other.”

Now the Yankees head to Tampa Bay to play the Devil Rays, who have beaten New York 11 times in 16 games. This year, the Yankees are doing the chasing, not the Red Sox.

“It almost feels like we’re in their shoes,” Rodriguez said.

Notes: Rivera’s 32 saves against Boston are the most by a pitcher against the Red Sox, according to Elias. … Boston matched its season low for hits and lost 1-0 for the first time since Aug. 11, 2003, against Oakland and Tim Hudson.

AP-ES-09-11-05 1914EDT

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